The Consumption of Women's Bodies and Cosplay

A collage of headlines from various media outlets' coverage of cosplay.

A collage of headlines from various media outlets' coverage of cosplay.

A handful of photographers scurry around the halls of conventions, sent by their media outlets. They quickly ask for permission to take photos of the most gorgeous cosplayers, snap the shutter button, check the viewfinder to make sure everything is okay, give a quick “thank you,” and go on their way to the next cosplayer. At the end of the day, the photos get compiled into galleries, get titled "Best Cosplay of (event name here)," and give the subject little thought otherwise.

Coverage of cosplay has stagnated over the past couple of years as galleries of unattributed cosplayers have become popular. There are a few reasons for this: online journalism’s fight for clicks for ad revenue has made click-through galleries overused, and it’s relatively easy to take a bunch of hall photos and put them together. It leads to a fairly good payoff without too much effort. These kinds of articles often pay for the more in-depth articles; unfortunately, cosplay rarely gets more than a surface-level glance.

As both a cosplayer and someone who writes about cosplay, the overabundance of “sexy cosplay” or “best cosplay” galleries — and the merging of the two — is what distresses me. When I discover the author of these articles, they’re frequently men, and from what I can tell, they do not cosplay. This isn't to say people who don't cosplay shouldn't write cosplay, but when a member of the press has poorly lit or composed photos and only those poorly lit and composed photos, the poor quality of work indicates they don't actually care about cosplay. I'm not expecting everyone to make gems out of hall photos (conventions often have terrible lighting), but if an article has no substance, then, as this GameSpot article illustrates, it's just a gallery made with the intention of racking up page views. You can't even see the face of the first cosplayer. The photos are awful, and the writer didn't attribute the cosplayers. For comparison, Paste Magazine made a pretty great article about cosplay at C2E2Playboy, unsurprisingly, only writes about cosplayers when they look sexy, but at least they've started writing the names of the cosplayers. But it still appears that Playboy is repurposing photos that other people have taken — maybe even without permission to reprint them.

Cosplay is an appearance-oriented art; there’s a focus on your body moreso than in normal fashion because it’s more about you embodying a character than only the clothing. When so much of cosplay comes from being accurate to a character—from the wig styled just right, to the costume construction, to the fit of the clothing—many people cannot look past a cosplayer’s body type. Like everything, cosplay can't be divorced from widely held beliefs in society; cosplayers who fit the societal standard of beauty are more likely to appear in publications or have their photos shared. Many professional cosplayers and cosplay models fit these standards. This isn't their fault, but it still speaks to what we're told is beautiful. Many of these cosplayers have done what people call "sexy cosplays": either cosplays that in canon are sexual or alternate outfits the cosplayer designed to be more revealing. I think it's somewhat coincidental; women like Yaya Han or Jessica Nigri seem to genuinely enjoy these costumes. Unfortunately, because people think it's okay to treat women like objects regardless of what they're wearing, women are harassed

From every single photo post I make, I know there is a huge percentage of folks out there who believe that female cosplayers often bring unwanted attention onto themselves by the costume and appearance choices they make. As in - if you don’t want to be disrespected, don’t dress that way. Stop showing boobs, put that shit away etc.!

I have never agreed with that mindset, but given some of the cleavage-bearing costumes I wear, my opinion usually gets discredited and I’m labeled as a hypocrite.

But, what people forget is that women get disrespected and objectified on a daily bases, across the globe, no matter what they’re wearing, online, and in person. Costume or no costume.

I was consecutively touched by strangers in NYC yesterday and tonight. Not within the convention center. Not while sporting cleavage. Not on my shoulders. Not as a hug... but a firm grab of a handful of my body while walking by, accompanied with something like “Damn, sexy”.

... I meet too many cosplayers who tell me their harassment stories and ask for my advice on how to deal with them. I have heard of too many incidences where a cosplayer regretted wearing a certain costume because of the reactions they got. There are too many girls who have told me that they are scared of dressing up as their favorite character because it bares some skin.
— Yaya Han,

Catcalling is a huge problem in and out of cosplay, and I don't think it comes down to whether a woman was wearing something sexual or not. After all, I was around 12 or 13 years old when a man first whistled at me from his car and honked his horn. I was startled, scared, and felt gross. By the time I was 16, I was tuning strange men out, squaring my shoulders and looking straight ahead whenever I had to walk past a group of men; I do it on reflex now. You can't tell me that a 12-year-old in shorts and a t-shirt was asking for that attention. Catcalling has very little to do with what women are wearing.

But people sure make other people's bodies their business. While some people (often men) talk dirty to women who are wearing revealing costumes, other women will criticize that woman and imply she deserved it or call her slurs

Pointless galleries have got nothing on the harassment women in cosplay and nerd spaces endure, but they're another symptom of how cosplayers, and women cosplayers specifically, aren't treated with respect. The photos of female cosplayers that frequently make it into galleries are usually of women who are thin. When fat cosplayers are featured, it's because the costume is gorgeous "in spite" of their body. If you don't fit that societal mold, you have to bring out something ten times better to get positive attention. People of color who cosplay are also more likely to experience negative attention for cosplaying.

Cosplayers can’t decouple their bodies from costumes because a great deal of costuming involves the body. The clothing design has a certain silhouette, and achieving that silhouette is done in some different ways depending on the body type of the cosplayer. A cosplayer might wear a binder over their breasts to change their silhouette or wear a petticoat to change how a skirt looks. We can control this to a certain extent using undergarments and fitting garments in particular ways. But at the end of the day, clothes look different on different people, and costumes are no different. When we are more concerned with accuracy, and because most characters are designed to be a body type that few people have, we overlook cosplayers who are fatter than what we imagine the character to be. Who cares if a Sailor Moon cosplayer looks fat? Why do we judge a costume based on whether that person fits our standard definition of what’s sexy?

The most frustrating part is that the people reinforcing which cosplayers are sexy are people from so-and-so magazine or website who see this cosplayer for all of one second. The pictures are put together without much respect for the cosplayer as a person or the hobby. If a reporter can’t even bother to get the name of the person in the costume, they’ve shown they just care about the physical appearance of that person in costume (or they have no respect for their own work). It’s the casual consumption of women’s bodies.

We’re not dumb; we know in the end, people mostly care about how you look in the costume. It’s an amazing feeling when you see photos of yourself and think, “I look good in that outfit!” And even when people are cosplaying mostly for fun, it’s encouraging to have people approach you with enthusiasm and ask for a photo. But the focus on the cosplayer as a canvas has contributed to harassment. Sometimes people get overexcited when they see a cosplayer dressed up as their favorite character and they invade the cosplayer’s personal space; accidents happen, and we understand, but it’s good practice to ask people for hugs and such before you do so. Instead of putting your arm around the cosplayer’s ask, take a moment to ask them if that’s okay. On the other hand, some violations of personal space come down to men believing women who dress in a sexy outfit are “asking for attention.” In this case, the offender isn't even thinking of the cosplayer as a person anymore. Many conventions have taken this problem seriously and prominently display “Cosplay Is Not Consent” posters.

Cosplay Is Not Consent is a movement to empower cosplayers to speak out against sexual harassment. Many conventions in the United States have taken firmer stances against harassment by alerting attendees to policies prohibiting behavior that threatens people’s safety. Even better, some conventions make it known on signs that anyone who feels threatened can report the behavior to a staff member, who will enforce the zero tolerance policy. Emerald City Comic Con has done this, and it has also held panels during the convention about harassment.

Harassment is still happening, and cosplayers in whatever outfits they’re wearing are speaking up about it. In a Huffington Post video from New York Comic Con 2015, cosplayers spoke about their experiences with both attendees and security officers working at the convention who have made inappropriate comments about cosplayers’ bodies. Some guys follow women around at conventions and make them feel unsafe. And “if you ignore them, they just get really nasty about it,” one cosplayer said in the video.

This sort of behavior normalizes the idea of women as property. Outside of cosplay, people still tout the idea that women who experience sexual harassment and abuse shouldn’t have expected any different if they were wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top or if they were not shouting “no!” But plenty of women, myself included, have experienced harassment even when not in revealing outfits.

I was walking home from a convention with a friend in our matching costumes, comprised of hoodies and pleated skirts in swapped colors. We were just trying to get to our apartment when a group of guys were shouting to us. They weren’t looking for just a friendly chat — and even if they were, if we just want to go home, that’s none of their business — because they kept getting closer and closer to us until they put their arms around us. These were strangers we’ve never met. They keep talking to us like they’re not interested in us as individuals. They assumed a familiarity with us despite us feeling more than a little uncomfortable and frankly a little scared. We got home after I remembered to be as loud as possible and make it completely known to anyone who might hear us from a nearby apartment that we wanted them to stay away from us. But I shouldn’t have to resort to screaming and kicking for a guy to understand I don’t want his arm on me. None of us should.

With that in mind, why do people choose to wear outfits that men sexualize them for? It’s because we should be allowed to wear whatever we want to a convention within the rules without fear of people ruining our day. If you think someone’s hot in an outfit, keep that thought to yourself. If you really want to compliment them, tell them they “look great” or that the costume’s awesome. Or even talk about the series with them because many of us dress up from games or TV shows that we love.

What sucks the most is that in the end, none of us win. The women who become popular for looking attractive are harassed by people who devalue their work because it’s considered sexy (because women aren’t supposed to try to look that way); the women who are overweight are harassed by people who devalue their work because they don’t look sexy.

Within the cosplaying community, women who choose to do sexy cosplays and get well known for it experience inappropriate comments all the time. There are people who think it’s actually okay to respond to the question, “Where is your favorite place to visit in the world and why??” with “Your breasts, cause they’re big.” Why do men think this is acceptable? (This is primarily a rhetorical question, but the reason, as I’ve been arguing in this piece, is that many men view women in and out of cosplay as playthings — as things to consume rather than as people.)

People attack promotional cosplayers for primarily being models because modeling isn’t seen as a feminist career path. They criticize Nigri and other women for alleged breast implants. These people believe if you weren’t cosplaying before you were getting paid to do it, then you’re not a real cosplayer, and they wrap that all up in claims that these women are only famous because of their breasts. It’s one thing if you want to discuss how modeling wants women to look a specific way, or to address the fetishization of breasts in society, but you can’t use that to attack individuals without coming off as a jerk who’s buying into the same arguments that those sexist attendees use to justify why they’re allowed to sexualize women in costumes. They gatekeep and believe those kinds of cosplayers aren't "actual nerds." It’s not those cosplayers who are setting unrealistic body standards. For that, you can thank, well, a lot of factors, but let’s focus on character designers.

In comics, it’s rare to find a woman in a DC Comics or Marvel Comics universe who 1) has proper breast support in a costume, 2) has a costume that covers the body like male superhero outfits do, and 3) is framed in a non-sexual manner. Within the storylines themselves, it takes some doing to find superhero teams that have more than one woman in the group. Cover art places women in backbreaking poses to make sure that readers can adequately sexualize both the woman’s breasts and butt. The Hawkeye Initiative has adequately made fun of how ridiculous poses are for women in comics, and now it’s branched into games as well. You can’t ogle that drawing and then shame a real, breathing woman for wearing that outfit; that’s as big of a double standard as you can get. And when so many costumes for women are sexualized, can you really blame women for wearing them? It’s slim pickings for non-sexual outfits, especially in comics.

But more than anything, some people find sexy outfits fun to wear. They feel empowered, they feel hot, or they wanted a challenge in making an outfit like that fit their body. Whatever the reason, it’s none of your business to critique them.

A lot of these problems — the hatred of professional cosplay models, the unsolicited comments from convention attendees, a hyper focus on cosplayers who wear sexy outfits — comes down to how we view women in society: poorly. It often doesn’t matter what you choose to do because someone will find a fault with it. Many of the problems in cosplay are the same problems we face outside of cosplay. We need to make greater considerations for people different from us.

For the majority of cosplay coverage, that means valuing women in cosplay as people. We should try to challenge standards of beauty in articles and cosplay galleries. When we value women solely based on their appearance, we’re not making an effort to understand others. How does that cosplayer feel in that outfit? Did she have fun making it? What does she like about that character or design? These are questions we miss when we have reporters who are just tasked with “come back to us at the end of the convention with a series of pictures of cosplayers in the halls.” Many of these articles don’t even attribute the cosplayers featured!

Here’s an idea: provide original content. if we want to pursue pictures of sexy cosplays, why not collaborate with cosplayers? Instead of repurposing photos from other sites and photographers, set up a professional photoshoot with consenting cosplayers in sexy outfits. If we want photos of cosplays from a convention, stand out from the crowd by also providing journalism. Talk to cosplayers; don't just gawk at them.

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